The Soft Skin (1964)
Director: François Truffaut
Writer: Jean-Louis Richard and François Truffaut
Cinematographer: Raoul Coutard
Producer: Marcel Berbert, António da Cunha Telles, and François Truffaut
by Jon Cvack
Previous to this I watched The Man Who Loved Women (1977), finding it a poorly aged misogynistic film with little going for it. The Soft Skin’s synopsis was another film following another middle aged man who’s drawn to a young beautiful woman. Yet instead of a shitty man on the conquest for as many partners as possible, The Soft Skin provided a David Lean/Woody Allen hybrid-like exploration of desire and the meaning of love, or even meaning. Counter to the last half dozen or so movies I’ve seen from Truffaut (mostly the Antoine Doinel series and a few others), this was an exceptionally crafted film; with gorgeous and meticulous photography that paid attention to the smallest details and moments.
The story is that of an esteemed writer Pierre Lachenay (Jean Desailly) who while flying to Lisbon meets a stewardess, Nicole (Françoise Dorléac). Pierre is enamored and after giving a talk at a conference, comes across Nicole in the elevator. The two get out on the same floor and he discovers her room number and calls her later that night for a drink. After an initial rejection, she calls him back, they go to the bar, and have sex.
Pierre flies back home where his wife Franca Lachenay (Nelly Benedetti) greets him with their daughter. Franca clearly loves Pierre, and while since having a kid they’ve yet to have a trip alone, she enjoys the life they have. The odd thing is that Franca is so much more beautiful than Nicole; confident, sexy, and curvy. While I’d like to think in certain moments, Truffaut and DP Raoul Coutard failed to properly light her in scenes, given how well crafted the film is, it seems more deliberate that in certain moment she looks a bit rugose and tired, with heavy bags under her eyes, as though worn from travel or the search for someone to love and love her; then shifting in a complete 180, suddenly beautiful and vibrant. Another great subtle detail is Franca who first says they haven’t been alone in four years, later shifting that number to five years, making you wonder if it might have been only a few years, or even one, and that their downfall was more recent than either would lead on.
Pierre meets Nicole aboard his next day flight back to Paris where she gives him a matchbook with her phone number written across the top. We see Pierre stuff it into his pocket, and provides brilliant tension throughout the next third of the film as we wonder if, or when, Franca will discover the note. Pierre soon calls Nicole and the two begin seeing each other near the airport at night whenever Nicole flies in. From my recollection, it seems as though, at this moment, Truffaut shot Nicole much softer, allowing her full beauty to flourish and making us understand Pierre’s obsession.
Pierre gets invited to present a screening in Reims of a documentary about the famous French author André Gide (not a real documentary, but a real person). He invites Nicole, but when he’s bombarded with fellow intectuals and fans, Pierre knows he can’t be seen with her; dropping her off at the room and telling her to buy some tickets from the theater as he doesn’t have any extras.
He attends the screening, and having just happened to have watched Saboteur (1942) just before this, bears a striking resemblance to Hitchcock’s movie theater scene at Radio City Music Hall. Pierre gives a speech, hoping to then dip out and join with Nicole, but gets stopped by an obnoxious colleague who demands they get a drink. Intercut is a restless Nicole who soon tires of the wait, heads out, where she then finds Pierre in the bar. They catch eyes, and while the friend speaks, we - through Pierre’s POV - watch as Nicole then approaches other men on the street, making Pierre crazed with jealousy. He excuses himself and leaves, saying that he wants to go back home to Paris. The colleague agrees, requesting a ride, leaving Pierre only seconds to go visit Nicole, where he apologizes before the two drive off, leaving the colleague all alone.
The pair spend the night and the next day Pierre calls Franca who announces her suspicions (though never having found the match book). Nicole and Pierre take pictures of each other, wandering around in the idyllic woods. Pierre then returns home the next day and so begins one of the all time great Cheating-Spouse-Confrontation scenes I can recall; as the two struggle between retaining what they’ve developed, and what they love. It’s during this scene that we see a photograph in the foreground of a shot; of Nicole and Pierre holding a pair of hunting rifles.
Pierre leaves and sleeps at his office. The next day, Franca calls him and says she’s getting a divorce. Pierre calls Nicole who says she can’t see him as her father’s visiting. When Pierre heads over regardless, he finds another middle-aged man walking down the steps. He returns home and Franca and him have another epic fight as Franca doesn’t want to let Pierre go, knowing that she needs to, and Pierre doesn’t want to risk losing his family, should Nicole fail to work out. The two end up making love one last time. After which, in a devastating moment, Pierre prepares to leave, Franca asks if he’s coming back and Pierre says it could never work out; as though he wanted to test her sexuality one last time before making his final decision.
Franca spirals into a depression, while Pierre attempts to start his life with Nicole. As with any film of the sort (Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) first comes to mind), Pierre notices Nicole’s first flaw as she talks loud in the restaurant, offending Nicole once again. They return to her apartment and she ends things; as we learn that Pierre is likely far from the first and soon to be the last man Nicole wants to explore, and we see that her life of travel is far more about adventure than settling down.
After Franca finds some photos from their time together in Reims, she heads home, enters a closet, and grabs the hunting rifle and finds Pierre in a cafe where she shoots him dead.
It was while watching the Criterion Special Features (provided on a stunning BluRay print), that I noticed a peculiar documentary about Truffaut’s interview with Hitchcock for his book Truffaut/Hitchcock. It’s a thirty minute behind the scenes documentary portraying the way the interview came about, what was discussed, and Truffaut’s passion for Hitchcock. It was either in this or in the video essay that The Soft Skin was compared to Hitchcock. It didn’t go into many of the details, but it was while writing this that I grasped the comparison and how masterful this story is.
Rather than focusing on the wrongfully accused or confused identity plot, it was applying suspense to a story of infidelity; capturing the thrill of lust and secrecy and demonstrating the terrifying consequences of its pursuit. It’s very much a moral tale, of choosing the darker path in the quest for greater pleasure.* The note, the photographs of Nicole and Pierre, the photo of Franca and Pierre, the friend who disrupts Pierre’s plan to ditch the conference, to the matchbook that contains the number. All of these elements add up to provide tension to the story. For some reason I never added them up to the consequence, and yet it’s the perfect ending; making you want to revisit the film and look for all the subtle details which foreshadow its conclusion. It’s not Truffaut’s attempt to take all he learned from Hitchcock and merge it with his own style. It’s one of his best films.
BELOW: Not much on YouTube so here's the trailer
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